Spicy and Proud: The Sasak People of Lombok

Geography and history define the Sasaks – the indigenous people of Lombok who make up 85% of Lombok’s 3 million people. Their language, religion, architecture, dances and music are the marriages of sailors, conquerors, artists, political outcastes and religious missionaries who have given the Sasak people their unique, spicy flavour.

The History of the Sasaks

Sasak history is hazy before the arrival of the Hindu Javanese in the 14th century: many claim that sea-going settlers arrived from the Malay archipelago around 100 BC to reinforce the original Austronesian pioneers who had made it to the island a couple of thousand years before.

As the Javanese Hindu empire crumbled on Lombok in the 16th century, Islam soon made footfall on the island and dominated the Sasaks’ unique blend of animism, Hinduism and Buddhism – converting it into the Wetu Telu, or the ‘Three Times’ religion.

Feudalism and the Balinese Invasion

Like their Balinese cousins, Lombok’s indigenous Sasak people were intensely feudal for centuries – bands of warring princely factions fighting over land, wealth and power – and were so busy fighting each other that they left their western coast wide open to the Balinese who invaded Lombok in the 17th century and didn’t leave for another 150 years. The Balinese brought with them their own flavour of Hinduism along with subak irrigation systems and their rice terraces, the gamelan, dance, new temples and the caste system.

Lombok, and the Sasaks, are a multi-coloured mix of history, culture and religion. The proof? Visit Lingsar in West Lombok, the world’s only Hindu temple where Sasak Muslims and Hindus come to worship together.

Sasak people
Sasak people gather in a village in the foothills of Lombok’s Mount Rinjani.

 

Sasak girl
A young Sasak girl poses for her portrait.

 

Sasak kids
Sasak kids take some time out for a laugh.

 

Sasak woman
An elderly Muslim Sasak woman poses for the camera in her jilbab.

Shades of Islam on Lombok: Wetu Telu and Wetu Lima

And like their Balinese cousins, Muslim Sasak followers of Wetu Telu pray three times a day – acknowledging the three human rites of birth, marriage and death. Today, the nominally Muslim Sasak Wetu Telu people inhabit the more remote villages and isolated mountain areas of Lombok – often working as farmers or fishermen. The ancient village of Bayan at the foot of Mount Rinjani is considered the stronghold of Wetu Telu – other Lombok towns and villages with sizeable Wetu Telu populations are Pujung, Rambitan, Sade, Loyok, Tetebatu, Sembalun and Bumbung.

Much of the rest of the island’s Sasak people now follow the Wetu Lima – the ‘Five Times’ religion – referring to the more orthodox Sunni Muslims who pray five times a day. Stir into the mix the 300,000 Hindu ancestors of the Balinese invaders still living on the west coast, and the tiny remaining Sasak population who follow Bodha (go to Bentek village on the slopes of Mount Rinjani to meet this sub-group who remain untouched by Muslim influence) and you’ll begin to see that Lombok, and the Sasaks, are a multi-coloured mix of history, culture and religion. The proof? Visit Lingsar in West Lombok, the world’s only Hindu temple where Sasak Muslims and Hindus come to worship together.

Sasak Wetu Telu Festivals and Ceremonies

As more and more Sasaks have moved from Wetu Telu to the more mainstream Wetu Lima, the rituals and ceremonies born from animism and Hinduism are dying out. But there’s still the hilarious Hindu-Wetu Telu ‘sticky-rice war’ known as Perang Topat  – something like a cultural food-fight between Hindus and Muslims held at Lingsar Temple every November/December.

Or Lebaran Topat, held in the seven days after the end of Ramadan at Bintaro cemetery in Ampenan, where relatives pour water over family graves and leave offerings of flowers, lime powder and betel nut. And the nutty Malean Sapi – Sasak for ‘cow chase’ – in Narmada, just east of Mataram, where highly competitive racers drive a pair of enraged bulls across waterlogged fields to commemorate the rice-planting season in April.

The scariest? Peresean, a traditional Sasak duel between two men armed with rattan sticks and buffalo-hide shields. Often performed the week before and after Indonesia’s Independence Day on August 17, Peresean fights used to be performed as a ritual to encourage rain before rice-planting – the more blood spilled the heavier the rain… (Catch the Peresean championships in Mataram in late December.) And if you’re on Lombok around February, get down to Kuta’s coast for the Bau Nyale celebrations accompanying the annual appearance of thousands of seaworms – said to bring prosperity and good luck.

Peresean fights in Lombok

Sasak kids practising Peresean

Dance, Music, Art and Drama

Don’t imagine that Lombok’s Sasaks are all about farming, fishing, praying and weaving: dance and drama are intricately woven into the Sasak identity. The hottest? Gandrung – also popular in Java and Bali, and originally performed in devotion to Dewi Sri, the Hindu Goddess of Rice and Fertility – is now a Sasak dance of courtship and love. For drama, try Gendang Beleq: a traditional marching band of two large drums followed by a gamelan group and performed – in the old days – to encourage Sasak warriors into battle.

Gendang Beleq, Lombok
Music procession in Lombok
A noisy music procession rolls down the street in Lombok, Indonesia.

 

Dancing crowd on the street in Lombok
A noisy street party in full-swing in Lombok, Indonesia.

 

Travelling Sasak music band
A Sasak street band rolls onto the next party.

While men are busy in the rice-fields or at sea, girls and women traditionally weave to while the time away. Ikat (meaning ‘to tie’), and the more refined Songket – the latter often involving intricate gold braid – are both renowned as some of the best examples of traditional hand-woven cloth in Indonesia and beyond. Watch the patterns taking shape: the village of Sukarare prides itself on having some of the finest weavers on the island.

Sasak weaving in Sukarare village
A elderly Sasak woman patiently weaves traditional Songket cloth in Sukarare village, Lombok, Indonesia.

 

Sasak Songket
A close-up up of traditional Songket cloth being woven in Sukarare village, Lombok, Indonesia.

Muslim Sasak Etiquette, Manners and Dress

The vast majority of Sasaks on Lombok are Muslim. Which is why haram – unacceptable – food such as pork will be hard to find during your trip. Like anywhere in Indonesia, using your left hand to give or receive anything is extremely bad manners – in Asia, the left hand is used to wash oneself after the lavatory. Consciously use your right hand in all interactions with people.

Swimming costumes are acceptable on the busier tourist beaches, but towel off and cover up with clothes or a sarong before you leave. Foreign, non-Muslim women are not expected to cover their heads in public – although doing so will earn you a lot of respect. Think ‘modesty’ when you dress: wear long loose pants or a skirt that covers your knees. Don’t advertise your cleavage, and cover your shoulders and elbows. Men: don’t walk around town without a shirt on. And try and find a pair of shorts that cover your knees. Long trousers are needed for a visit to the mosque. Outward appearance is everything: clean is good; unwashed is not good.

Shaking hands, as in the West, is a sign of friendship and respect. After you have shaken hands, raise your hand and touch your heart to show your sincerity.

And if you are lucky enough to be invited into someone’s home, be sure to take your shoes off first…

Sasak Traditional Houses

For some solid Sasak architecture, trip over to the eastern side of the island. Sade is typical: built on a low escarpment to conserve arable land, the village’s wooden houses are built in neat rows. Topped with woven reed roofs (alang-alang), many traditional Sasak houses still have clay floors smeared periodically with cow dung – said to prevent mosquitos and guard the home from evil influence. Thatched, pile-built lumbung – rice barns – dot the easier lower slopes. And at the centre of the village is a thatched mosque – most traditional Sasak mosques are topped either with a single or a double pyramid roof.

Travel to Rembitan village for another authentic cluster of thatched houses and lumbung – its ancient thatched mosque, the Masjid Kuno, is a pilgrimage site for Lombok’s Muslims as one of the founding fathers of Indonesian Islam is buried here.

Sasak traditional house
A row of traditional thatched Sasak houses in Lombok, Indonesia.

 

Sasak vacation house
A traditional-style Sasak vacation house for rent in Lombok, Indonesia.

 

Inside a vacation Sasak house
The modern interior of a traditional-style Sasak vacation house in Lombok, Indonesia.

Food: Some Sasak Favourites

If all of this leaves you hungry, dive into some Sasak favourites. Sit down in a warung and try some Ayam taliwang – fried or grilled chicken with a chili sauce – or Gule lemak – chicken curry. For vegetarians there’s Kelor (vegetable soup) or Beberuk – raw eggplant with a chili twang. And for a sweet Sasak dessert or an energy boost there’s Lapis – rice, flour, coconut milk and sugar wrapped in a banana leaf – or a Cerotot cone of rice, flour, coconut milk and palm sugar.

Sasak food
A full Sasak menu tempts hungry passers-by in Lombok.

 

Sasak warung, Lombok
A busy Sasak warung in full swing, Lombok.

Some Useful Phrases in the Sasak Language

And last but not least: if you’re going to Lombok, why not get your Sasak tongue working? The most common greeting isn’t “How are you”, but “Where are you going?” Ojok um bay? A polite reply might be Lampat-lampat… “Just walking…” or “I’m going to Bayan” – Bayan wah mo ojok um bay.

See you on Lombok. Yak la low…